“It Is Better for You” (Mark 9:38-50)
You don’t hear a lot of people talking about hell. It’s not a very popular topic. Modern ears are too sensitive to hear any talk of God actually judging people and sending them to hell. How dare he! Who does he think he is, God? Well, yeah. He can make that call. He is the almighty Judge, who is always righteous in his judgments.
But the Bible does speak of God’s judgment and eternal damnation. Even so, you don’t hear a lot of sermons that even mention hell. Well, today you will. Because Jesus himself talks about hell. A lot, actually. Listen again to what he says, in the reading from Mark 9: “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’”
“It Is Better for You.” Notice that refrain running through this text. Over and over again, Jesus emphasizes that it is better for you to enter life maimed than to go into hell with all of your members intact. So now let’s explore why and hear how to avoid such a horrible fate. You see, there is a better outcome in store for you than to end up in hell.
First of all, what do we mean by the word “hell”? In brief, it is the term used in the Bible for the place of eternal punishment for the ungodly in the age to come. That’s hell. The word that’s used in our text for “hell” is the Greek word “Gehenna.” And “Gehenna,” in turn, comes from the Hebrew to refer to the Valley of Hinnom. What’s the connection, you ask, between the Valley of Hinnom and Gehenna and hell? Well, the Valley of Hinnom is a ravine right next to the city of Jerusalem. And in the Old Testament, we read about some of the Israelites practicing the false religion of offering up sacrifices to a pagan god–even child sacrifices, in the fire, in the Valley of Hinnom. So a curse was pronounced upon that place. Thus the Valley of Hinnom, Gehenna, came to be associated with the judgment that God places upon false worship and unbelief. And that is the connection of Gehenna and hell.
Hell is a reality. All the wishful thinking in the world cannot whisk it away. The Bible speaks of and teaches God’s judgment and curse and wrath upon those who reject him and rebel against him–the Bible teaches this consistently from cover to cover. There’s no getting around it: Hell is for real.
And Jesus speaks about the reality of hell, not only in our text today, but also in other places in the gospels. For instance, in the judgment of the sheep and the goats, Jesus will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” And then it says: “And these will go away into eternal punishment.” Likewise, Jesus will talk about those who are cast out into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. And in our text for today, he speaks of those who go to hell as going to “the unquenchable fire,” “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.”
The point? Hell is for real, and it’s a place you definitely do not want to go. And Jesus reinforces that point by making several comparisons. He says, “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell. . . . If your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell.” Now imagine that. Imagine cutting off your hand. As bad as that would be, it would be better than going to hell. Imagine cutting off your foot. That would be better than being thrown into hell. And imagine tearing out your eye. That also would be better than being thrown into hell. It is better for you to enter life, to enter the kingdom of God, with one hand, one foot, and one eye, than to go to hell with both hands, both feet, and both eyes. Yeah, even that way, you’d be better off.
Hell is for real, and you don’t want to go there. Or do you? There are people in this world who don’t want anything to do with God or with Jesus in this life. In the age to come, they will get their wish. They will be cut off from God forever. They will have no part in the life that is found only in Christ. The unbelievers, the mockers, the rejecters–that is where they are headed. Straight to hell. Why? Because they are rejecting the only way of salvation there is, namely, through Christ. And so their sins remain on them. Christ died for all the sins and all the sinners of the world, but if one rejects the one remedy that God provides, then what remains but fearful judgment?
Now God does not want people to go to hell. That’s why Jesus came. But when people refuse the gift, their sins remain upon them, as does God’s judgment. The Bible says, in John 3: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. . . . Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”
Do you see? God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” And that truth is Jesus, who declares, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Yes, the Lord is “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” And this is why Jesus warns us today about the danger of going to hell. So that we would repent and turn to him for forgiveness and salvation and eternal life. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Yes, there is something better in store for you today than going to hell. Something much netter by far. This is a treasure more precious than all the gold in the world. This is a pearl of great price, worth more than anything you could imagine or desire. It is the free gift of everlasting life in Christ. Nothing else can compare. It is better for you, so much better, that you would gladly suffer any loss, so as not to lose this one thing needful.
What is in store for you, this gift that is so much better? It is the forgiveness of all your sins. Everything that would weigh you down and cut you off from God–all that burden is lifted from you and you are brought near to God as his dear children. What is this thing that is better? It is the sure hope of the life to come, life everlasting, life that overcomes the grave. This is yours in Christ. Hold on to this hope, and it will carry you through all the hardships and grief and loss of this life. What is this gift? It is the resurrection of the body on the last day, the day when Christ returns and restores all things. Glorified bodies in a renewed creation, life everlasting with our Lord and all his saints. Yes, this is our hope, in Christ.
How? How is this so? I know I do not deserve this. I have done nothing to earn it. My sins afflict my conscience. How can I be sure I qualify? How can I know I get in? Answer: Not because of anything you do. Not by your performance or your goodness or your measuring up. No. It’s because of what Jesus does for you. He died for you on the cross to take away your sins. Your sin and your guilt are covered by the holy blood of Christ, God’s own Son. He, the innocent one, suffered the agony of separation from God, abandonment by God, the wrath of God, there on that cross. He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” That was Jesus experiencing what hell is like, that Gehenna, to be cut off from God. He took that forsakenness in your place, so that now you will not suffer it. “It is finished!” he cried, declaring his saving mission completed. Then Jesus descended into hell, into Hades, the domain of Satan, to declare his victory even there. And on the third day he rose from the dead, bodily, to show forth that the victory remained with life, and that this resurrection life is what is in store for you who trust in him. This bestowal of life was sealed in your baptism, and you taste of it here in the Supper, a foretaste of the feast to come.
It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than to have all your members whole and be thrown into hell. The past two days I received news of the deaths of two persons I have known for quite some time. One is the father of my best friend going back to kindergarten in Chicago. He was an immigrant from Greece, by the name of Themis Tsaoussis, and he was my buddy’s dad. Mr. Tsaoussis was a man I knew and respected for almost my whole life. He lived to a ripe old age, but still he died, and one feels the loss. Death isn’t supposed to happen, you know, at no matter what age. Death is the enemy of life, the last enemy to be destroyed, and it will be destroyed, once and for all, when Christ returns and raises the dead.
The other person I knew who just died is someone you may have heard of, Maggie Karner. Maggie was the director of Life and Health Ministries for the LCMS. She was a real leader in the pro-life movement. Ironically, though, this woman in charge of life and health came down with a terminal illness about a year or so ago. And Maggie was not old. She was only in her middle years, with a husband and several young adult daughters. But she was diagnosed with brain cancer, and she knew she had only months to live. But this only gave her a greater opportunity to speak out in favor of life and of the hope she had in Christ. Maggie knew there was something better in store for her. The Lord was saying to her, “It is better for you, Maggie, to enter life with brain cancer than to live a long life with perfect health but to miss out on the kingdom. Yes, it is better for you, my child, so much better. Welcome home.”
Jesus gives this better gift to you today. He says: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” And we answer with a hearty “Amen!” “Yes, yes, it shall be so!”